Tennessee Boating Laws Obey's Tennessee's Boating Laws

Tennessee Boating Laws

author-thumbnail Grover Collins

BY Grover Collins

Founder & Managing Member

Tennessee Boating Topics Discussed in this Article:

  • Do You Have to Wear a Life Jacket on a Boat in Tennessee?
  • What Safety Equipment Do You Need While Boating?
  • Is Boat Insurance Required in Tennessee?
  • Do You Need a Boating License in Tennessee?
  • How Often Should You Have Your Boat Serviced?
  • Can You Drink On a Boat in Tennessee?
  • What is a BUI?

How to stay safe on the water in Tennessee

In 2019, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) reported eight boating fatalities. In 2020, the TWRA reported 32 boating fatalities—the highest number in nearly 40 years. The rise in boating accidents and fatalities makes boating safety a more pressing matter for Tennessee residents.

Do You Have to Wear a Life Jacket on a Boat in Tennessee?

Children under the age of 12 must wear a personal flotation device, also referred to as a life jacket, while on an open deck of a recreational boat in Tennessee. Exceptions arise in instances only where the boat is anchored, moored, or aground. The life jacket must be approved for use by the U.S. Coast Guard.

While children over the age of 12 and adults are not legally required to wear a life jacket, the U.S. Coast Guard requires that each boat carry at least one personal flotation device for each person aboard the boat.

What Safety Equipment Do You Need While Boating?

In addition to a personal flotation device, there are some other safety items that may be necessary to mitigate boating accidents. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Type IV (throwable) Flotation Device. Throwable flotation devices are required on boats that exceed 16 feet in length in the event someone falls overboard.
  • Fire Extinguisher. All boats exceeding 26 feet in length must have a Type B fire extinguisher on board. However, other boats under this length may be subject to this requirement.
  • Boat Lighting. All boats operating between sunset and sunrise and during periods of restricted visibility are required to display appropriate lighting. For instance, these lights include applicable red and green sidelights and a stern-light. Smaller boats should display an all-around white light. A backup flashlight can help ensure your boat is properly lit in the event of lighting failure.
  • Sound Producing Devices. Boats that exceed 39.4 (12 meters) in length are required to carry on board a whistle and a bell.

Is Boat Insurance Required in Tennessee?

Tennessee law does not require boat insurance; however, it is wise to purchase insurance. Boat insurance policies, for instance, can include coverage for collision damages, property damage liability, bodily injury liability, and protection against vandalism, theft, and non-collision damages.

Do You Need a Boating License in Tennessee?

Individuals born after 1989 are required to complete a boater safety course to obtain a Boating Safety Education Certificate. This certificate is required to operate a boat in Tennessee powered by an engine of more than 8.5 horsepower. Sailboats and all other boats powered by an engine of less than 8.5 horsepower do not need a certificate.

Children under the age of 12 are not permitted to operate a boat powered by an engine of more than 8.5 horsepower unless they are accompanied by someone over the age of 18.

How Often Should You Have Your Boat Serviced?

Being safe on the water encompasses that your boat is serviced regularly—at least once per year—to prevent equipment failure that could result in a boating accident. Important components of your boat include, but are not limited to the engine, hull and topsides, and electrical systems. The U.S. Coast Guard provides a free vessel safety check to ensure your boat is properly suited for the water. A vessel safety check will look for the following:

  • Life Jackets
  • Registration and numbering
  • Navigation lights
  • Ventilation
  • Fire extinguishers
  • Distress signals
  • Battery cover and connections

Failing a vessel safety check does not result in a citation, but rather, a written report on how to fix any problems.

Can You Drink On a Boat in Tennessee?

Per Tennessee Code Annotated § 69-9-217, it is illegal to operate a boat while under the influence of any intoxicant, marijuana, narcotic drug, or drug producing stimulating effects on the central nervous system. This includes alcohol and any drugs which may be prescribed to you.

Passengers over the age of 21 are permitted to drink while on a boat in Tennessee. Passengers, for the safety of others, should consume alcohol responsibly to avoid any alcohol-related boating injury or accident.

What is a BUI?

Any individual found to be in operation of a boat with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 or more may be charged with boating under the influence (BUI). BUI is a criminal offense under Tennessee law. In 2019, TWRA reported 62 BUI arrests. In the event of a boating accident, operators may be subject to a breathalyzer or blood test to rule out inebriation as the cause of the accident.

Under the old Tennessee BUI law, offenders were fined, confined at the discretion of the court, and potentially prohibited from operating a boat for a specific period.

The new Tennessee BUI law, however, mirror BUI penalties with those convicted for DUI. Confinement is no longer discretionary, but rather mandatory, so that all offenders convicted will serve jail time no less than 48 hours. Subsequent BUI convictions subject offenders to a minimum 25-, 65-, or 150-day incarceration, respectively.

The new BUI law applies to boating accidents resulting in injuries and fatalities stemming from an impaired boater. Boaters can now be charged with vehicular assault or vehicular homicide, where the term “vessel” is now an included to more closely connect BUI and DUI-related offenses.

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